Saturday, July 26, 2014

Traveling West Virginia: The Mortuary Museum, Continued

I suppose technically I should not title these two posts as "Traveling West Virginia" since the Peoples Mortuary Museum is in Marietta, Ohio, but since it's just across the river, and since Bill Peoples, owner of the museum, is a cousin of Don Knotts (the famous Barney Fife of Andy Griffith fame), I'll let it stand.

The museum had more than just hearses. Mr. Peoples has been collecting for years and his museum reflected his good eye:

First is this pretty wood bed, actually called a funeral board. It can be folded up neatly into a suitcase shape, and that was how it was stored because it was re-used as needed. The pretty netting was a necessity in warm weather when doors and windows might be open or there were many people coming in and out, letting in insects.


This looks like a wicker coffin, doesn't it? It's actually a basket used for the wake or visitation period of someone whose remains were not fit for viewing. The basket would be closed and placed on the funeral board. At the time of the funeral the body would be removed from the basket to the actual casket. These baskets were also stored and re-used. And this, I learned, is the origin of a term we sometimes use when someone is in really bad shape: we might refer to them as a "basket case."

The harness in the above photo was donated by a man from Waverly, WV, who found it hanging in his barn, where it had been for many years. It was originally harness used for a horse drawn hearse. Mr. Peoples sent the old, dirty leather to the Amish to be restored. They cleaned it very well, but the leather is too dried out to actually be used again.

 Mr. Peoples also has an early embalming table on display. He is holding an early electric pump for embalming fluid. On the shelf above is a brass cylinder that was an experimental model using air pressure.

At the opposite end of the embalming table is a large, early hair dryer. Really. And here we thought those were an invention of the 60's! 


Babies sometimes had to be placed in baskets as well. The ribbons on the basket would be pink or blue, depending on the child's gender. These were also stored away, and it is sad to think how often they might have been used in the days when disease took so many children.


 It was customary until the 1920's or later for the deceased to be laid out in private homes rather than in funeral parlors. In the photos below you can see an elaborate setup that would be brought into the home by the funeral director, and set up in the parlor. Even the heavy drapes were brought in and placed across picture windows to block out the light and heat. Large fans were brought in during hot weather. At the time of the funeral the body would be placed in its casket, and the trappings would all be stored away for the next use. Mr. Peoples noted that young people did not like going into the parlor because everyone connected that room of the house with death, and so when the use of funeral homes became the norm the term used for the room became the "living" room, and funeral parlor became another term for the funeral home.



In the photo above left you can see a wood box. That was a casket made to hold the body of someone who had died from something that was thought to be infectious. A glass-paned door allowed people to look in at the deceased, and could be opened if needed. Another small door in the center of the lid could also be opened so flowers and other items could be placed in the coffin. Obviously, the size of this one indicates it was for a child.


I asked Mr. Peoples about the story I had heard about houses, particularly in the south, that had two front doors. I was told that one of those doors was for the living, and one for bringing the dead out of the home in the coffin. That door would open directly into the parlor, making transport of the large box easier. Mr People's said that he had not heard of the two doors before, but he did know that some large Victorian houses were built with one larger window on the side of the parlor to be used for taking the coffin out of the house.

Death is not a happy topic, but this museum was fascinating for its look at changing customs. Touring the museum gave me a new perspective on the funeral industry and I learned some interesting history and lore, and I was not one bit depressed when we left. As with anything, the more we know, the better equipped we are to understand.

And I'll think hard before I refer to anyone as a basket case again!

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Traveling West Virginia: The Mortuary Museum Hearses

Maybe it sounds morbid, but when I stumbled on a mention of the Peoples Mortuary Museum in Marietta, OH, I was fascinated. Really? What might they have on display? Would they have the answer to my burning question about the use of formaldehyde for embalming in 1906? I found the number, called, and set up an appointment to visit within a few minutes.

The museum is run by Bill Peoples of the Cawley & Peoples Funeral Home in Marietta, right on historic Front Street. An appointment is necessary because Mr. Peoples conducts the tours himself, so the time needs to fit with his work schedule. It is really his private collection that he has opened for public viewing, and what a collection it is.

Before going inside, we had a picnic lunch in a little park on the banks of the Muskingum River, directly across from the funeral home. It was perfect day for it. We'd packed my vintage wood picnic basket in the morning with ham, tomatoes, bread, peaches, lemonade and bananas. You know, I got the basket out early in the spring, anticipating opportunities for picnics this season but we've never taken time to pack it. That needs to change; it was a far better lunch than any fast food place could provide, a lot less expensive and to be able to eat in such lovely surroundings...well, it can't be beat.

We met Mr. Peoples at our scheduled time and he led us to a building located behind the funeral home. Inside, one of the first things we saw was a movie poster and promotional materials for the movie "Get Low", starring Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray. Bill explained that one of his antique hearses was the main vehicle in the movie--

and then there it was, right in front of us, a 1927 Henney hearse, built on a Packard.






Director's chairs, scrolling poster and other memorabilia given
to Mr. Peoples by the studio.
In the movie, this hearse is seen in scene after scene; one of the best is when Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, and Lucas Black are all three packed into the front seat. The hearse in earlier times was also used as an ambulance, as was this one. It has a built-in siren, and Mr. Peoples said that several scenes had to be re-shot because Bill Murray could not resist blowing the siren. I can just imagine it! The movie company had Bill Peoples on site for 6 weeks while the movie was being filmed and some of his family played as extras. Mr. Peoples had copies of the movie for sale so we bought one and watched it last night. It was excellent, great story line, strong acting, and the car!

There were two other hearses in the museum, both Packards and both incredibly beautiful. I thought what a shame it was that those who got to ride in it were in no condition to enjoy the luxury of their surroundings.


This vehicle is one-of-a-kind, a Packard with a custom windshield, 3 roof options, and a finely detailed interior. It was a prototype designed by a funeral director who took it to a hearse manufacturer in hopes that it would become one of their model line. The manufacturer was under contract with Cadillac, I believe, and could not take on this design. Mr. Peoples became its owner through an odd series of events, and it is certainly a showpiece.
 The interior even had cathedral windows!
 And of course, prior to the automobile there was the horse-drawn hearse. I wish I had some photos of the intricately carved wood panels on this and on some of the other hearses. The workmanship is remarkable.


More from the museum in my next post.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Porch Sitting

What is it about sitting on the porch? Just sitting there, watching the world go by? From my front porch, there's not much of the human world to see; Larry and I are usually the only two-legged creatures roaming around this hill, if you except the birds. There's a good plenty of feathered folk here, from the common robin to the colorful goldfinch and a mighty hawk that keeps regular patrol routes over our chicken yard.

Honestly, there's not a lot of excitement around here. Looking out from the porch we see pretty much the same thing every day: the dogs playing or sleeping, the cat prowling or sleeping, the vehicle parked in their usual places, the gardens and flowers and scattered tools that didn't get put away. There's plenty of trees to look at, and a nice patch of sky and we can usually hear a vehicle passing on the road--and if rain is coming we will often hear the highway, 4 miles or so away.

Still, the porch is where we like to be and we will be out there as late in the year as we can stand the cold, and as early in the morning as we can get up. We stop for coffee on the porch, eat lunch there, and often spend evenings in our rockers too, just looking out at the same ol' view we've looked at for the past many years. And the view does change, actually:

8 years ago, Hannah was only 8; now she's driving and a junior in high school, all of the vehicles in the photo are long gone, and the porch has been stained several times.

Haley was 10, I think; at this moment she is in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, as she begins her career in the Army National Guard.

In 2003, an ice storm created havoc with our view and took down some favorite trees,


but later in 2003 the mess was cleaned up and grandchildren came to make spoon puppets. Now these young ones are all out in the world, getting on with college, careers and life. Jared works in Morgantown, Allison is a high school senior and on her way to UT-Chattanooga with a full scholarship for volleyball, Cassie is in Nashville pursuing her songwriting career, and Kate is a psychology major in college.


The porch is still here, and Larry and I still sit out in our rockers, talking and talking and wondering how we have so much to say to each other even though we're together 24 hours a day. We watch the birds, pet the dogs, stare at the cats, discuss the gardens, make plans for the day if it's morning, or review what we did if it's evening. We listen to the trucks and four-wheelers invisible from our view and wonder who is going where and why. We hear the crunch of the mailman's tires, the drumming of a woodpecker and occasionally the roar of passing military aircraft. We watch the moon come up, the stars appear, the frost melt or the snow fall.

It might not be the best view in the world or the most exciting place to be, but it's our place, and that makes all the difference to me.


Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.
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